The Best GPS for Your Boat: From Basics to Bells and Whistles

The Best GPS for Your Boat: From Basics to Bells and Whistles

Without GPS and other helpful online boat accessories, traveling the oceans of the world would be much more dangerous. Not to mention, taking longer to get where you're going.

But what are the best boat and marine GPS units and chartplotters for your dollars? Before I review in detail at the best GPS units for your boat, I thought I'd take a moment to discuss the merits of a good marine GPS unit.

So, what does GPS stand for? That would be Global Positioning System.The U.S. military developed it and, along with other military innovations, there's always a commercial use.

GPS consists of around thirty satellites that circle the earth. Your receiver has to connect with at least three of these satellites to provide positioning accuracy of about 50 ft.

Before GPS, most ocean-going ships used Long Range Navigation, or LORANS for short, but that only had an accuracy measured in the tens of miles.

Now, it's hard to understate just how important GPS is to today's sailors. In short, it's as vital as a buoyancy aid or a life raft. Without GPS, countless people would have sailed off course and become lost upon the salty sea.

Before technology, sailors would navigate using the stars, charts or visible land. Learning these old skills is a dying art, so what does that modern boater rely on? Technology, that's what.

Using GPS in the middle of the ocean is far different from the GPS units that have become common-place in our cars. Oceans don't have sign posts or junctions.

Why Do You Need GPS?

It's important to distinguish what type of boater you are. Are you an inland waterways user, happy to cruise up and down the lakes and rivers? If so, a GPS is useful but not essential. If you get lost on the lake, keep pointing the boat in one direction and you'll hit land.

However, the sonar facility on the GPS unit will come in handy for shallow waters. The GPS unit has a use when you moor up and explore the rugged terrain.

I think it's fair to say that boaters are outdoor types, eager to get out into nature and see some of our beautiful lakeside islands and forests. In that case, a hand-held GPS will prove invaluable. It will allow you to explore the wild in the knowledge that technology has your back.

However, on ocean-going yachts, the scenario is entirely different. A good GPS unit is a life-saver. It helps you plot your journey even in the deepest and most remote seas. All because the umbrella of satellites is protecting you.

NEVER toss off the fenders and dock lines and leave the shore without a GPS unit, not unless you can read the stars or a map of the oceans via charts. An excellent rule of thumb is this: If you're surrounded by water, and you don't have the first clue where to go, you probably should have packed a GPS unit.

Featured Boat Care Product

     Deck Cleaner

Check Price on Amazon - Better Boat's deck cleaner quickly breaks down dirt, grime and grease to leave your boat's deck clean, shiny and residue-free. Use an extension rod and mop head to get to the hard to reach places. 

What Can GPS Do?

It's probably better to ask: What can't GPS do? Okay, so I get that there are limitations. Depending on the budget, some have more advanced features than others. In essence, a good basic GPS unit should:
  • Act as a Compass: It should give you a bearing to your destination based on your current position.

  • Mark Way Points: This is important because the GPS will remember the way points for future reference; very smart to have if you're making the same return journey.

  • Plot your Position: It's vital to know exactly where you are in the ocean, especially if you're trying to determine the distance and bearing of the final leg of the journey. It also acts as a marker to rescue vessels should you need help. Your position is charted using Longitude and Latitude positions. Imagine the earth with invisible circles running North to South and East to West.

  • Constantly Updates your Position: Like all good GPS systems, it will tell you when you're off course via a series of alarm sounds. More importantly, it will re-calculate to help you steer back in the right direction.

What About GPS Apps for Your Smartphone?

With the advent of smartphone technology, there are loads of boating apps, especially GPS apps. Just how good are they?

Well, as much as I embrace tech stuff, I don't want my life to be placed in the hands of an app, especially if I'm in the middle of an ocean.

For one thing, your smartphone needs a signal, and I'm just not sure the signal is going to be that great way out in the middle of nowhere.

Two: you just can't beat the real thing. GPS apps are excellent options for inland waters like lakes and rivers. You can almost always ensure that you'll get signal coverage and you'll never be in the same state of isolation as when you're sailing the oceans of the world. The chances of you experiencing grave danger are somewhat less in that situation.

So, a GPS unit it is. The first thing I need to talk about in this review of the best boat and marine GPS units is:

GPS Budget Considerations

Some of the best marine chartplotters and GPS systems can set you back thousands of dollars, like this Raymarine (Available on Amazon). If you have an infinite amount of money, then it could be tens of thousands of dollars. If you do have an infinite amount of money, consider giving us a call.

What I wanted to look at, however, were the GPS units across the price spectrum but still within the budget of the everyday boater.

So what do the higher priced GPS do differently to the cheaper units? They'll tell you everything you need to know, even down to the terrain beneath your boat and where the fish are, but some of the cheaper hand-held units could do that too.

Most expensive units have pre-loaded maps of the oceans, while the cheaper ones concentrate their mapping on the coasts around the U.S. So if you want more maps, you have to buy them (in much the same way that you do for your in-car GPS unit).

And speaking of budget, if you want updated continuous mapping of the seas, it's worth subscribing and paying a yearly fee for the information. Most manufacturers offer that service. Sure, it's an additional cost, but it could be a valuable investment.

There's no point having an outdated GPS unit. That defeats the whole point of having one to start with.

What Are the Best GPS Units for Your Boat?

Let's start with the most expensive and then descend in price order.

Raymarine Axiom Touchscreen

Check Price on Amazon

Raymarine is a trusted and well-known name in the marine industry. Their Axiom model is another in a long line of quality marine products.

The 9-inch screen version retails at over $1000. If you want the 12-inch version with 3D display, you could be shelling out closer to $3000.

What do you get for all that money? Well, as I mentioned, you get a 3D display (on some models) as well as 3D sonar that maps the seabed in real clarity.

On the subject of sonar, the Axiom has side vision as well as down vision. It has a fish finder facility too, so if you're a keen angler, this will become your new best friend.

The Axiom has a super-fast Quad processor, which the company claims gives "Blazing speeds." It also should mean that the unit never slows down. It makes mapping way points simple and has a "Dock to Dock" feature that's designed to make your journeys easier.

It comes loaded with U.S. and Canadian coastal maps as well as 20,000 maps of inland ponds, lakes and rivers. If I had the budget, I would definitely buy one of these units.

Simrad Go7 XSE Chart plotter

Check Priceon Amazon

This GPS unit retails for just under $700. It has a 7-inch touchscreen (also widescreen) and is user-friendly. It has a chart plotter, which makes journeys more manageable. As with all the models featured, it has a way point marker for future trips and that all important return journey.

The Simrad Go7 also comes with a CHIRP sonar (Compressed High-Intensity Radiated Pulse) with forward scan and structure scan facilities. It'll map your speed of travel and the depth and temperature of the water.

It's worth noting that the Simrad only comes with pre-loaded maps when purchased in North America. If you pick one up in any other country, the maps have to be purchased separately.

Raymarine DragonFly 7 Pro

Check Price on Amazon

The Dragon Fly retails at just under $500 although there are more expensive variations of the same model. As with the other Raymarine product featured on this list, you know that you're buying quality.

This model comes with CHIRP sonar technology as well as a downward scan facility with a 600-foot (180m) depth capability for deep ocean scanning. It also has a traditional sonar that makes tracking fish that much easier.

It's chart-compatible with all of the significant chart suppliers, like Navionics+, and it has the capability to mark 3,000 way points.

micro SD card (Available on Amazon) makes the loading of maps and storing info that much more straightforward. The GPS element has 50 channels, giving a high degree of accuracy.

The screen is 7-inches and easy to use. It comes pre-loaded with Navionics+ charts. 

You could choose Lithium batteries to reduce power usage and prolong the battery life.

Garmin Echomap CHIRP 54 CV

Check Price on Amazon

This unit retails for less than $300, which is in the same territory as in-car GPS units. You might think at such a low cost, it wouldn't be as effective as the more expensive units. Not so!

For starters, it comes loaded with U.S. blue charts, something that some more expensive GPS units don't have. That said, if you want Canadian and lake charts, you'll have to pay for them.

The Echomap comes with CHIRP sonar that sweeps the ocean with a continuous frequency for greater information.

Blue charts or lake charts can be loaded depending on what type of boating you enjoy. The images it gives are almost photo quality.

If you want the next model in the range, the SV series also offers side view sonar scanning. The Echomap also allows for easy way marking for the return journeys. The GPS updates five times every second for complete accuracy.

Garmin Striker 4

Check Price on Amazon

This is a fairly basic model that retails for less than $100. And do you know what? If the basics are all you want, then this unit is a fantastic value for the money.

It's easy to use, has a color display, can be upgraded and is hand-held. The Striker really is the entry-level GPS unit for the novice boater or those with a very tight budget.

Even though it can plot way points, and it will give you a speed-of-travel reading on the screen, I would imagine that this little unit is best used in the relative safety of inland waters

Like Ray Marine, Garmin is a titan when it comes to GPS units. Most of us know Garmin for their in-car GPS (Available on Amazon) units, but they're equally at home providing marine devices to help boaters.

What Have We Learned?

We've learned that a GPS is as important to boating as life jackets, buoysanchors, chains and dock line. The first thing to point out is there are numerous manufacturers of GPS units for the marine community. In this review, I wanted to feature the best boat and marine GPS names and units that I felt were popular and spanned the affordable price bands.  

In essence, whether you're spending $100 or $1000, the aim is the same. You want a GPS unit that does the basics, such as allowing you to mark waypoints, acting as a compass and telling you your position on the ocean. The other features are nice to have, but having them often comes at an increased cost.

As with all of these things, you'll ultimately decide what marine GPS unit is best for your boat, and you'll decide how much you want to spend.

It'll be a decision based on the type of boating that you undertake. For inland waters and rivers, you don't need to pay big. You just want a reliable device to keep you on course.

But for the sea, it's a whole different ballgame. Safety is paramount, and those extra gadgets that the more expensive GPS units have will come in very handy indeed. That's the main point:

What you want to spend determines the quality of your GPS unit, but so does where you travel.